April 2020

Andy Curtis, Graduate School of Education, Anaheim University, CA, USA

The Case for Including New Peace Linguistics into a Diversified TESOL Curriculum

One of the most recent published definitions of Peace Linguistics (Curtis, 2018) states that it is “an area of Applied Linguistics, based on systematic analyses of the ways in which language is used to communicate and create conflict, and to communicate and create peace. Peace Linguistics is interdisciplinary, drawing on fields such as Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation, bringing those together with fields such as Sociolinguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis” (p. 12). Since that definition was published, it has become clear that, although the idea of Peace Linguistics (PL) has been around for decades (Crystal, 1999; Gomes de Matos, 2000), few people have heard of it, and even fewer have taught or learned about it until recently (Curtis, 2017).

In its earlier versions, PL was based on giving advice on using language “to communicate peacefully” (Gomes de Matos, 2000, p. 341). Although that was good advice and an important starting point, the ‘old’ PL did not involve the analysis of actual language used by speakers and writers. Therefore, the New Peace Linguistics (NPL) has focused on analyzing the language used by some of the most powerful people in the world, as it is they who have the power to bring about peace or to start wars. Two central tenets within NPL are, there can be language without conflict, but there cannot be conflict without language because all conflicts start and end with language. If two world leaders hurl insults at each other, then their ‘war of words’ could easily become a war of guns, missiles, and bombs. And whenever a peaceful resolution is found, it is based on the language of negotiation, mediation, and forgiveness, to name a few.

A tragic example of how an argument between two people can escalate and result in the death of many is the killing of dozens of people in January 2020 in Thailand. A soldier in the Thai army “killed his commanding officer, stole weapons from a military base, and went on to launch a devastating attack on civilians.” According to multiple, reliable news sources, the soldier “said that a property deal appeared to have given [him] a sense of grievance which led to his rampage”. Two people argue – many people die.

The First Peace Linguistics Course

In the Fall of 2016, I was invited to develop a course for Brigham Young University-Hawai’i (BYU-H) on PL, which still appears to be the only PL course of its kind, as far as we know, i.e., a university-level, credit-bearing course on PL. We–BYU-H and I–carried out extensive searches, looking to see if anyone, anywhere had taught such a course before, but found nothing. The location is important as a key part of the BYU-H’s vision is to: “assist individuals ... in their efforts to influence the establishment of peace internationally,” and to prepare “men and women with the intercultural and leadership skills necessary to promote world peace”. The course was first offered at BYU-H in January and February 2017, over eight weeks. The first and last weeks were taught online, and the six main weeks were made up of six hours of classes per week making a total of 36 hours of in-class, face-of-face teaching, plus two weeks of online learning. As stated in the original course syllabus, the course objectives were:

“By the end of this course, successful participants will be able to:

  1. demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the linguistics of language used to communicate for peaceful purposes.
  2. explore, examine and articulate the cultural and linguistic aspects of the languages of conflict and of peace.
  3. present and explain the use of poetic language, drawings, photographs, music, and other forms of text to illustrate different aspects of communicating for peaceful purposes.
  4. gather, analyze and present data on people’s perceptions of peace, in relation to language and culture.
  5. carry out a critical discourse analysis of a text which shows how language can be used to create peace or to create conflict” (Curtis, 2017, p. 30).

After careful consideration of a number of possible course texts, we chose The Language of Peace: Communicating to Create Harmony, by Rebecca Oxford (2013). Oxford sets out 6 principles of communicating peacefully: “Peace is a viable option” (p. 4); “We can and must declare peace instead of violence” (p. 10); “Language has verbal and nonverbal forms” (p. 11); “Peace language addresses multiple dimensions: Inner, Interpersonal, Intergroup, International, Intercultural, and Ecological” (p. 12); Speakers of peace language are ordinary people – yet also extraordinary” (p. 22); “The language of peace is not always simple” (p. 23).” Although the same core text was used in 2018 (Oxford, 2013), a number of changes were made when the PL course was taught the second time, including a greater balance between the linguistics content and the peace studies content. The students’ assignments and assessments were also revised, with less of an emphasis in 2018 than in 2017 on the remembering of facts and figures, names and dates, definitions and descriptions.

From 2019 onwards, the PL course was taught on a regular semester schedule, for three hours per week over approximately four months, rather than being taught intensively, six hours per week, over two months. That schedule gives the course participants more time to explore the large volumes of material and to connect their PL course to their majors. In both years (2017 and 2018), the class size was approximately 20, and as a result of BYU-H’s highly multilingual, multicultural student population, the two cohorts were from Australia, Canada, Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan, Mainland China, Mongolia, the Philippines, Samoa, Tahiti, the USA, and elsewhere. The two main majors of the students were TESOL and Peacebuilding, as well as students from a number of other departments, such as Communication Studies, Cultural Anthropology, Elementary Education, Political Science, and Social Work.

A Short, Simple Activity

One activity I have done with the NPL course participants is to give each of them a piece of paper, with a simple line drawing of a person holding a rifle of some kind, and wearing a military uniform of some kind. All of the pieces of paper have exactly the same drawing, but half of them have the caption ‘Terrorist’ and the other half have the caption ‘Freedom Fighter’. The students sit in pairs, and without showing their partner their paper, they orally describe to each other their drawings. A few things stand out each time we do this activity. First is how negative the descriptive language is when the caption is ‘Terrorist’, for example, the students use words such as ‘evil’, ‘killer’ and even ‘murderer’. However, the language that is elicited when the caption is ‘Freedom Fighter’ is far more neutral, such as ‘soldier’, and ‘warrior’, and sometimes even positive, with words like ‘hero’ being used. Another thing is the looks on the faces of the students when they put down their pieces of paper and see that the drawings are, in fact, identical. Many of the students are extremely surprised to see how much the one- or two-word caption shaped their thinking and how that thinking was reflected in their language choices.

To understand how the language of some of the most powerful people in the world shapes our world, NPL has focused on political leaders. For example, on 5 January 2020, Brad Parscale, the election campaign manager for US President Donald Trump, said: “The President’s war chest and grassroots army make his re-election campaign an unstoppable juggernaut”. As well as “war chest” and “army”, the President refers to the “war room”, from which his re-election campaign will be run. Such ‘warist discourse’ is designed to present the 2020 US Presidential elections as some sort of ‘battle’ between good-and-evil, right-and-wrong, black-and-white. It is also worth noting Parscale’s use of the adjectival modifier, “grassroots”, which is designed to give the impression of some sort of ‘people’s uprising’ against perceived injustices. And Parscale’s use of “unstoppable juggernaut”, which is tautological, creates the image of some massive, irresistible force, crushing everything in its path. Heightened awareness and in-depth analyses of this kind of language may help us understand how people in power utilize language to influence their audience in ways that could either lead to a great deal of conflict or help bring about lasting peace.


Curtis, A (2017). Back from the battlefield: Resurrecting peace linguistics. TESL Reporter, 50 (1), 20-34. Retrieved from: http://ojs-dev.byuh.edu/index.php/Issue1/article/view/966/919

Curtis, A. (2018). Introducing and defining peace linguistics. The Word, 27(3), 11-13. Retrieved from: http://www.hawaiitesol.wildapricot.org/resources/Documents/Word/2018%20May.pdf

Crystal, D. (1999). A dictionary of language (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Gomes de Matos, F. (2000). Harmonizing and humanizing political discourse: The contribution of peace linguists. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 6(4), 339-344.

Oxford, R. L. (2013). The language of peace: Communicating to create harmony. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

From 2015 to 2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th President of TESOL International Association. He is the author of the first book to be published on Peace Linguistics, titled The New Peace Linguistics and The Role of Language in Conflict, which will be published in Spring 2020, by the University of Michigan Press.